The Ins and Outs of Researching Philanthropic Data

When I first joined APRA Wisconsin 15 years ago, one of the highlights of our spring and fall meetings—besides seeing each other and learning from industry leaders and innovators—was the exchange of annual reports and donor honor rolls. Back then, at the turn of the new millennium, very few of us were posting donor lists online, but we did know that a key to identifying a prospect’s philanthropy was to see it displayed.

Gifts to and service with other organizations provide prospect research with valuable insights that our own internal data may not include. For example, is your prospect on the donor list or board of visitors of a prestigious graduate program? Are they a major donor or trustee of an animal shelter, hospice program, or youth sports initiative? Have they made a tribute gift in honor of another one of your prospects?


When you find a prospect’s name in the annual report of another nonprofit, what you are really seeing is how they have chosen to invest their time, talent, and treasure. You get a glimpse of their priorities, passions, and relationships.

However, prospect researchers aren’t paging through those paper reports anymore—or, at least, we are doing so far less often than we did 15 years ago.

Philanthropic involvement is so important to prospect research that most wealth screening services now include charitable information. But most researchers will tell you that this is, at best, an imperfect solution. While most other wealth screening data has multiple data points on which to make a match, philanthropic gifts are usually matched on name alone. This means that your Betty Smith might match to Mr. Robert Smith and Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, or to Betty and Bob Smith, or to Jim and Betty Smith. Even if she isn’t married to a Bob or a Jim.

As I’ve said before, philanthropic data, like all screening data, needs to be verified before it can be trusted. Some we can immediately discard from our analysis because the name match is clearly erroneous. Think of the rest as breadcrumbs.

Where the match appears valid, search for the nonprofit’s website to verify what the screening reports. Most nonprofits include their board list in the “About Us” area of the website. And many will also link to their most recent annual report(s) in the About Us, Support, or News sections. Who knows—you might even find a donor profile or director bio!

If what you find on the nonprofit’s website isn’t helpful, or you still aren’t sure the person on their board is your prospect, it can be helpful to look at the nonprofit’s Form 990 filing. Many will report home or business addresses for their board members—giving you that missing link to definitively connect (or disconnect) that organization’s board member to your prospect. (Be sure to look at historical Form 990s as well, because they will show you former board members that the website does not.)


The next step—or perhaps your only step—is to look for information the wealth screening didn’t or couldn’t surface. It’s now time to turn to a search engine (or two, or three), and begin typing in all the name variations you can think of. Using quotation marks and Boolean operators will make a difference in your search strategies, as will clearing your Internet browser history and cookies frequently so the search engine is less able to predict and filter the results it delivers.

So, search for “Betty and Buddy Smith,” “Bob and Betty Smith,” “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith,” “Mrs. Elizabeth Smith,” etc., until you hit the wall of diminishing returns. With a less common name than my example, you should hit pay dirt relatively quickly, or perhaps not at all—some very philanthropic people opt for anonymity, and will do so for a myriad of reasons. And, of course, we should remember that not every prospect we research will turn out to be philanthropic.

However, when you do find your prospect in the annual report of another organization, don’t stop with the donor list. Look for all the times their name(s) appear. Do they serve on the board or a committee? Are they members of a planned giving society? Has someone else honored them with a gift? These are the data points that reveal passion and connections.

We can certainly augment our understanding of a prospect’s capacity to give by looking at their gifts to other organizations. But through their philanthropy—their “love of humanity”—our prospects are often also expressing their best selves.

Sarah Bernstein is an independent consultant in Milwaukee, WI, supporting nonprofit organizations with prospect research and database analysis. She earlier worked in both the social service and higher education sectors. Sarah is an active member of APRA International and past president of the APRA Wisconsin Chapter. She blogs at The Fundraising Back-Office and can also be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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